The Meritocracy in Singapore

Inequality in Education

The educational system in Singapore, which relies heavily on meritocracy, has come under scrutiny due to the significant focus on the socioeconomic background of individuals. Those from a higher class are being rewarded by the educational system not because they are considered more meritorious than those from a lower class, but rather because their families have been successful in providing a conducive environment for studying as well as purchase tuition (Zhen Yuan, 2019). Conversely, the representatives of the lower socioeconomic background do not succeed in education, not because they are incapable of learning, but because the system makes them disadvantaged. This trend is alarming since the intent behind meritocracy is to celebrate and promote the individual talent of citizens and not their socioeconomic position.

Therefore, meritocratic education in Singapore rewards socioeconomic privilege rather than actual merit. For example, the recent surge in the use of full-time home-based learning (HBL) associated with the COVID-19 pandemic calls for the increased use of digital technologies (Lee & Yeo, 2020). However, due to the rich-poor gap, the students-representatives of the lower class may not gain the same benefits from HBL as their higher-class counterparts due to such barriers as the lack of device availability, the unfavorable physical environment, parental skills, as well as connectivity issues. Therefore, the educational system in Singapore shows to be more favorable for students that live in a favorable socioeconomic setting that is helpful for them to advance in learning.

Inevitably, meritocracy remains the most prominent principle for recognizing individuals in Singapore. Despite its association with elitism, social and economic inequality, as well as social stratification, there is no other system that could be more effective in implementing in the country. For instance, as mentioned by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung, it is the mutual job of the government and the population to overcome the limitations of meritocracy together, fighting against the divide between the social status (Heng, 2019). One of the solutions if to “make a strong effort to remove affordability as an impediment for students from lower-income families to attend independent schools” (as cited in Heng, 2019, para. 10). Therefore, although meritocracy is not a perfect system, understanding its limitations can lead to increasing the success of improving citizens’ lives, ensuring a broad recognition of talents, as well as uplifting the weaker member of society. However, the preference for one’s kind and the existence of a clearly-defined class structure limits the opportunities for social and economic fairness, which furthers inequality in the state.

Social Mobility Challenges

While Singapore’s phenomenal transformation has resulted in a progressive environment and a harmonious society, there are still issues stemming from the state’s economic success. Social mobility refers to an individual’s capacity to have a better life than his or her parents and the influence of the socioeconomic background on success in life (OECD, 2018). In regard to this, the government has been working finding ways to use both meritocracy and education to boost social mobility (Youjin, 2020). However, this will not be sufficient alone, as the population remains vulnerable to arising problems limiting social mobility while perpetuating inequality in Singapore.

An example of the limitations brought by social mobility is the rise of assortative marriage, which occurs when Singaporeans of the same social status marry. According to the findings of the Singapore University of Social Sciences (2019), the proportion of perfectly-matched young married couples on the basis of their educational attainment from 41.9% in 2000 to 51.5% in 2010. Assortative marriage can have a direct impact on inequality in the state because married couples have a similar capacity for earning. Because of this, income inequality can literally reproduce itself and perpetuate further deeply entrenched social divides. Thus, the government maintains social mobility in Singapore in terms of educational opportunities and meritocratic structures; however, they are not enough to prevent the limitations brought by inequality.

The population’s social mobility is also highly limited by the economic environment within which the population is placed. Singapore was ranked third in the 2018 World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index and second in the 2018 World Economic Forum Ease of Doing Business rankings (Bhaskaran, 2018). However, the country has not been performing well in terms of the costs of living for average Singaporeans and business costs. For instance, Singapore has become one of the most costly cities in the world to live. According to the findings of The Economist Intelligence Unit (2020) research on the worldwide cost of living, expatriates found Singapore the most expensive city as well as the costliest worldwide in terms of owning a car. Besides, businesses operating in Singapore have experienced an increase in operating costs (Economist Intelligence Unit, 2020). Therefore, despite being competitive on a global scale, the high-cost burden placed on local citizens and businesses in Singapore furthers economic challenges, which have the potential of furthering inequality in the state.

Social Status Limitations

Singapore currently has five social classes, which include the fractional upper class, an upper middle class, an intermediate middle class, a lower middle class, and a working class. The upper class is represented by Europeans and Chinese businesspeople working in the sphere of banking and finance. The upper middle class represents the majority of professional people, such as executives, professors, and higher-standing civil servants. The intermediate middle class includes the representatives of the commercial industry, while the lower middle class works predominantly in the service industry (Paulo, 2018). The working class is the largest, capturing around 75% of Singapore’s population, with the representatives having a low occupational status.

While Singapore has been successful at fostering multiculturalist values and the mixing of ethnic groups, there is a need to increase the blending between social classes. The research on social capital in Singapore by Chua, Ser, and Koh (2017) found that the population was clearly divided not by age, religion, or gender, but rather by class. For instance, the clear divide among social classes in Singapore is an indicator of the lack of mixing along class lines, as evidenced by assortative marriages, which leads to further inequality (Yong, 2017). Economic inequality, which is closely tied to the social divide between classes, is also challenging to the social structure of the country. According to Singapore’s Gini coefficient, measuring the distribution of earnings across the population’s income percentiles, inequality is still high compared to other OECD countries (Bhaskaran, 2018). The corresponding figure for the Gini coefficient in Singapore in 2016 was 0.458, while it was 0.462 in the United States and 0.516 in the European Union. After taxes and transfers, Singapore’s coefficient fell to 0.402 while it was 0.390 in the US and 0.308 in the EU (Bhaskaran, 2018). Although income inequality is high in both the US and the EU not considering transfers or taxes, government policies have been targeting the mitigation of income inequality. Therefore, the distribution of economic growth benefits in Singapore remains skewed, which furthers inequality in the country.

Singapore has shown to have structural economic conditions that reproduce elitism and inequality within the class system. The overall financial success of the country and its steady growth has been attributed to market-friendly policies ranging from low tax rates to the relatively low number of regulations. However, some economists have also suggested that the prosperity of Singapore was closely associated with the involvement of the state. The decreasing productivity of the population is among the key challenges that the government fails to address due to the focus on favoring the contributions brought by international players. For example, as the workforce remains on the same level and the population ages, the government’s efforts intended to incentivize child-rearing continue failing (Bhaskaran, 2018). The resident workforce has the potential of turning negative if the falling fertility rates, combines with strict immigration guidelines, persist. Thus, despite the market-friendly policies, Singapore has been ineffective in boosting the population’s work productivity.

Despite the government’s plans, the issue of social inequality of Singapore remains relevant in terms of citizens’ gender identity and sexual orientation. The LGBTQ+ community’s rights in Singapore are highly restricted, with sexual relations between individuals of male gender remaining a criminal offense under the country’s criminal code, section 377A (Human Rights Watch, 2019). For instance, the government has not enforced any legal protection against individuals’ discrimination based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. Since India repealed a similar anti-LGBT law in 2018, the public, especially younger generations, expected some government movements in the direction of equality (Geddie, 2020). However, no significant changes have been made, which furthers the class discrimination and inequality in the country.

At this time, the political climate in Singapore is at crossroads, with the nature of politics that the government will pursue in the nearest future to improve the social environment. One of the main challenges that the political representatives face is engaging Singaporeans in uniting the country while also keeping the politics constructive and focused on the future (Ho & Kwang, 2020). For example, the Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat recently mentioned that the government was prepared to work in a normative scenario intended to facilitate the unification of society and politics. These efforts have to be compelling enough in order to stand against the international backdrop characterized by the increased fragmentation of society.


Despite the seemingly positive intentions associated with installing meritocracy as the system of governance, the representatives of the lower socioeconomic background do not succeed in life, not because they are incapable of learning but because the system makes them disadvantaged. The meritocratic education in Singapore rewards socioeconomic privilege rather than true merit (Teo, 2019). There is a high need to broaden the understanding and definition of merit, which is currently focused on predominantly academic achievement. Only when the definition is broadened, it is possible to consider meritocracy as a viable system with which Singapore will move forward. Now, the focus on class decreases opportunities for establishing equality, which furthers inequality in the country.


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